by Chris Olsen
Sometimes discovering your perfect match happens in an instant. Your eyes meet, sparks fly, the energy is palpable and undeniable—something tells you that you’ve found “the one.” But more often, the connection happens slowly and gradually. You begin by meeting for coffee or a cocktail, there are enough commonalities to keep the conversations flowing, and a relationship develops and deepens over time. If finding a business partner is anything like finding a life partner, Marilyn Weiss and Cindy Blackstock’s journey to finding their match is more like the latter.
Marilyn started her career as a trauma nurse in the pediatric unit of a Texas hospital. She found the opportunity she had to be the voice of her young patients extremely rewarding. She possessed an innate ability to interpret what they needed into language that everyone understood. As Marilyn advanced in her career and explored potential hospital administrator opportunities, she pursued an MBA. It pushed her in a completely different direction than she anticipated—consumer insights. Before long, she was recruited for a position at General Mills in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she developed a passion for harnessing consumer insights to fuel business outcomes.
Cindy’s professional journey began as a chemical engineer for Kimberly Clark. As a full-time researcher, she worked on front-end product development, focusing only on a small part of the product. In her role as a scientist, she worked closely with brand teams. She realized she wanted to do what they were doing—working on products at the end of the cycle when they were fully developed and as they were being launched. After pursuing an MBA in marketing, Cindy found her ideal place within the organization as a brand manager. She left the role when her husband was recruited for a position in Minneapolis.
Marilyn and Cindy didn’t know it at the time, but after each of them had dropped off their kids at the same school each day, they’d swing by the local coffee shop to grab a beverage and often stayed to do some work. As they continued to bump into each other, small talk turned into longer conversations. They realized they were both Minnesota transplants with small children. Both had left the corporate world and were doing complementary consulting work. They ended up working together on a project for one of Marilyn’s clients and realized they were well-suited for a partnership. Marilyn is a dreamer with big ideas. Cindy is analytical and can quickly identify which ideas are worth pursuing.
They also discovered they shared similar values and were aligned in their thinking about an ideal workplace. They agreed that when you are doing something you love, it doesn’t feel like work at all. Marilyn shared her favorite quote with Cindy from Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” It sparked an idea for the women to create a company with a more collaborative culture and different from the corporate world they’d left behind.
In 2009, Cindy and Marilyn made their partnership official by launching SIVO Insights, a company that specializes in connecting directly with consumers to gain valuable insights on products and services, and transforms those findings into business solutions. In an era where business decisions are made largely based on data that’s gathered through artificial intelligence, SIVO is committed to making personal connections and capturing information directly from the human source—and not just as it’s happening. SIVO helps clients like 3M, Best Buy, Cargill, Polaris and Whole Foods discover what customers want even before specific products and services have been developed or launched.
And the company culture they’ve created is innovative as well. It offers an environment they refer to as “The Village,” where team members focus specifically on the work they are best-suited for. The business is made up of 40 insight strategists and support staff, each doing what they love. Strategists are focused on meeting client needs, but when and where work happens is flexible. The structure works because Marilyn and Cindy value and invest heavily in ensuring SIVO’s communications pathways and culture are well-defined. And they are intentional about creating multiple touchpoints for teams to engage with one another—both professionally and personally.
More recently, Cindy and Marilyn launched LINX WorkForce Innovations to help organizations gain a deeper understanding of employees, which are the consumers of the workforce, and improve employee experience to attract and retain top talent. As these business partners can attest to, employee satisfaction is not measured by surveys alone. Even when data demonstrates the majority of a workforce is engaged, there is significant value in digging in to determine what exactly that means. And that happens most effectively when people outside the organization are collecting insights directly from those inside the company.
Photo: SIVO Insights
About the author: Chris Olsen is a radio veteran turned communications consultant, educator and author of “Whyography: Building a Brand Fueled by Purpose”. Through her work as a consultant partnering with startups, Chris realized her WHY—to support women-owned businesses in confidently communicating their purpose and impact, setting them up for entrepreneurial success. She created My Founder Story and Publish Her as platforms for doing so.